Prosecuting hate crimes is a top priority for Civil Rights Division: Assistant AG

Eric Dreiband

Hate crimes have no place in our society. These despicable crimes violate the law, hurt their victims and harm all of us by violating our core values and eroding civic trust. Perpetrators should be on notice: The Department of Justice has made hate crime prosecutions a priority, and its Civil Rights Division, under my watch, will continue to do so.

Recent hate crimes incidents in the United States and abroad are deeply troubling to me personally, to my colleagues at the department and to all decent Americans.

Our nation is a pluralistic community and becoming more so every day. That is, of course, a good thing, and we take pride in it as part of our collective American identity. But a nation like ours can only succeed if we tolerate each other’s differences.

The Department of Justice is both the top law enforcement agency in the United States and the American people’s attorney in court. We unequivocally condemn the bigotry and ideologically-motivated crimes of all hate groups, including white nationalists, white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis. Prosecuting hate crimes is one of the top priorities for Attorney General William Barr — and obtaining justice for victims will always be a top priority for the Civil Rights Division.

We're actively fighting hate crimes 

Between January 2017 and March 2019, the Justice Department indicted more than 50 defendants on hate crimes charges and obtained the convictions of more than 40 people in hate crime cases, with some cases still pending. 

Many of these cases are well known across the country for their disgraceful and shocking violence.

We successfully prosecuted James Fields, who drove his car into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia and killed a peaceful protester, Heather Heyer, during the summer of 2017. In March, he pleaded guilty to 29 federal crimes and was sentenced to life in prison on June 28, 2019. Our prosecutors have also charged four other defendants for their actions in Charlottesville that day.

In November 2017, the department sent an experienced and highly respected federal Civil Rights Division prosecutor into state court to assist with the prosecution of two Iowa men charged with murdering a teenager who identified as gender-fluid. Both defendants were found guilty and will now spend the rest of their lives behind bars.

Racial and religious motivations

We are protecting Americans from racially-motivated attacks as well. Last summer, we obtained an indictment of two men from Maine for assaulting an African-American man. In addition, we secured a jail sentence for a Texas man who harassed an African-American family in his apartment complex in an act of intimidation. Last spring, we secured a life sentence for a man who killed an innocent Indian-American man at a bar in Kansas because he thought the man was from the Middle East.

Currently, we are prosecuting a defendant who allegedly murdered two African-American patrons at a Kroger grocery store because of their race and attempted to murder a third, in Jeffersontown, Kentucky. And in another of our cases, a grand jury indicted another defendant for the arson of three African-American churches in Louisiana.

A memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Dec. 2, 2018.

We are also prosecuting attacks against people of faith that occurred at their places of worship. We will continue to defend the rights of all in their houses of worship, regardless of creed. Since January 2017, we have obtained 14 indictments and 10 convictions in cases involving attacks or threats against houses of worship and against individuals because of their religion. 

Hate is different: I have a mental illness. Don’t scapegoat, institutionalize people like me after shootings.

Most notably among these, in January 2019, at our request, a grand jury returned a 63-count indictment of the alleged Pittsburgh shooter for the mass murder of Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue. We are continuing to prosecute that case in federal court. In addition, last May we obtained a 113-count indictment of the individual who allegedly fatally shot and wounded worshipers at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in California and who attempted to burn a nearby mosque.

Special focus on domestic terrorism

We also use our law enforcement resources to identify cases before violence and injury happen. In 2018, the Justice Department secured the convictions of three men who conspired to detonate a bomb at an apartment complex in Kansas, which included a large number of Somali immigrants. In 2017, the department won the conviction of a man who burned down a mosque in New York.

And we continue to employ our full investigative resources, especially in hate crimes prosecutions that are also acts of domestic terrorism.

Poway shooting:When a white American attacks, call it by its true name: Terrorism.

These are each important efforts — and we are proud of them. We also seek to be more effective. We therefore established a Hate Crimes Enforcement and Prevention Initiative, which coordinates our efforts to fight against hate crimes by facilitating training, outreach, and education to law enforcement agencies and the public. This Initiative has already held a series of seminars and roundtables to promote best practices across the country. 

We remain focused on improving our collection of data on hate crimes and training hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the country to improve reporting. Correspondingly, more law enforcement agencies began reporting hate crimes data due to increased awareness about methods of reporting. In fact, about 1,000 additional agencies reported hate crime incidents in 2017, and the FBI calculates that the number of agencies submitting data — compared to those reporting no data — rose 14.9%. These increased data and reporting rates will help us better combat this violence.

All of us deserve to be safe

According to data reported to the FBI, hate crimes have been increasing each year since 2014. Some of this may be attributable to the amplified levels of reporting across the country by law enforcement agencies and other factors including increased awareness. However, any increase in hate crimes is too high, and we must continue our efforts to eradicate these atrocities.

The department has also recently worked with state and local law enforcement and local community organizations to launch the justice.gov/hatecrimes website which publishes resources to help law enforcement, the media, researchers, victims and advocacy groups in our shared effort to make this country safer from hate crimes.

The men and women of the Justice Department are proud of this record. But this is only the beginning. As long as I preside over the Civil Rights Division, we will continue our aggressive prosecution of hate crimes. We will also continue to improve our effectiveness through better training and better information. This department works for all of the American people — no matter their race, religion or background — and each of us deserves to be safe.

Eric Dreiband is assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Prosecuting hate crimes is a top priority: Assistant attorney general